How different universities can come together to effectively grapple with challenging global issues (opinion)
How different universities can come together to effectively grapple with challenging global issues (opinion)

People and programs in university settings cannot fight the world’s most pressing problems if they must fight archaic structural and cultural norms within academe, too. For example, in the case of global environmental sustainability, support in higher education has never been greater. Yet disincentives that limit the impact of such support persist, putting into conflict professional and programmatic pursuits with a shared vision for a better world.

We must reinvent an educational culture and structure that prioritizes collaboration over competition, redefines credit and success, and reimagines what and how we teach. In the wake of the long-term impacts and institutional reorganizations stemming from COVID-19, let’s not simply replace what our programs and universities lost; let’s fix what already wasn’t serving our shared goals.

Why not restructure so that this work is performed because of our academic culture rather than despite it?

We represent a network of training programs at universities and other institutions across North America that are actively engaged in developing and expanding graduate sustainability leadership skills. In our network, we experiment with authentic collaboration and co-production, open resource sharing, and sustained mentorship and exchange. We share the ideal that no cap should exist on who or how many receive such training.

To arrive at our networked approach, however, we had to undergo a process of disentangling individual incentives and disincentives, programmatic priorities, and various institutional roadblocks. Many of us were eventually able to commit because of strong supervisory backing and stability in our well-resourced programs.

But we and anyone else working to advance something as important as global sustainability should not have to choose between what it takes to confront imminent crises and achieving academic success.

We consciously adopted a networked model that prioritizes sharing and transparency in spite of built-in pressures to compete. We did that recognizing that we and our programs exist within a larger system that focuses less on shared outcomes than on keeping score of individual scholars’ and programs’ outputs. It was more important to our network that our collective sum be greater than our individual parts when it comes to training the next generation of sustainability leaders.

Though our network is relatively new, the last four years have taught us that reshaping the ways we engage with one another and approach our work can be a major boon for tackling pressing problems like global sustainability. Based on our experience, here is what we suggest other scholars operating within a reinvented academe can do, too.

Collaborate with the competition. Individuals, programs and even institutions do not have the bandwidth or requisite diversity of experience and expertise to understand and solve grand challenges alone. No matter how commendable our work is on its own, we have an obligation to acknowledge our limitations and amplify our impact where possible. This realization is nothing new, but we have observed that commitments to collaborate often stop at good intentions. A reinvented higher ed would follow through to make collaborative ideals more of a reality.

Our network promotes collaboration over competition by sharing insights and lessons learned on regular calls. In the fall of 2020, for example, we and other participants candidly discussed how we were adapting in-person programs to a virtual setting. By design, we were just as frank with one another about what didn’t work as we were about what did, creating an open and informative dynamic that benefited us all during a chaotic time.

Our network is also piloting training exchanges, whereby program leaders with expertise in one subject area will virtually engage with students other than their own. The ultimate goal of these exchanges is not only that students receive more comprehensive training; it is also a way to train the trainers, using our diverse pool of strengths to enhance one another’s abilities and offerings.

Redefine credit and success. Sustainability challenges, like many other issues with no clear precedent or boundary, erupt rapidly and erratically, but outdated ideas about who gets credit or garners a return on their investment are getting in the way of solutions. The stakes are too high, the urgency too pressing, to constrain ourselves based on what credit we may or may not receive or hold on to individual and programmatic egos. A reinvented higher ed would overhaul institutional recognition systems and reward real-world impacts rather than prestige.

We can’t afford exclusivity if it means waiting for new programs and trainers who share our same goals to learn what more established ones already know.

One way that ANGLES has redefined credit and success is through the ongoing co-creation of a web-based network map. The network map, which is open access, is intended as a structure through which both established and aspirational graduate sustainability leadership programs can survey and draw inspiration from the existing landscape.

As opposed to hoarding trade secrets or requiring new programs to continually reinvent the wheel, network map participants have committed to lowering the bar for entry by publicly displaying detailed information regarding their program design, logistics and offerings. Contact information is also provided so that interested parties can easily connect to ask others for advice or to learn more. No citations are required when ideas are taken up, no branding is necessary when models are mimicked and no paywalls must be circumvented. Imitation equals success.

Reimagine what you teach. We need sustainability experts to become sustainability leaders primed to take on the demanding roles and responsibilities that await them. Yet conventional curricula rarely make room for the so-called soft skills -- like emotional intelligence, boundary crossing and public engagement -- that are essential to completing this journey. Keeping critical capacities on the margins misaligns what and how we teach with the real-world challenges we face. A reinvented higher ed would dynamically adapt student trainings to the needs of the time.

Our network facilitated such a reimagination by co-developing a shared curriculum platform for skills-based graduate sustainability leadership training. It's not a standardized prescription, but rather a flexible framework that is layered with practical guidance from a diversity of established programs. It is ready for instructors to adapt or follow, with goals of filling curricular gaps at universities and reducing instances of trainers having to make it up as they go.

None of this is to say that any of the above was easy, especially as COVID-19 emphasized the fragility of such endeavors. We call for collaboration, yet we know firsthand the difficulty of making time for voluntary partnerships outside one’s official job duties. We speak of deprioritizing credit, yet we understand the pressure to claim or constrain when we contribute disproportionate time or resources to joint efforts. And like any group, we encounter ulterior motives and strong personalities that can hamper needed adaptations.

Supportive supervisors and network champions reduced the network’s susceptibility to some challenges; however, neither are permanent nor guaranteed. What would (and should) have helped the most -- and what we hope will reduce hurdles for other scholars in a reinvented academe -- are structural and cultural shifts at all levels that encourage and reward whatever work is demanded by pressing problems like global environmental sustainability.

Righting the broken parts of our academic system needs to happen swiftly but will still take practice and time. How can scholars get started?

To find competitors-turned-collaborators, begin searching within a single university before looking across multiple institutions, as this may increase buy-in with doubtful higher-ups. To help colleagues build comfort with open sharing of ideas and information, create informal opportunities first that make clear the mutual benefits of participating in such exchanges. And to clarify priorities when maintaining the status quo would be the easier option, keep the bigger picture in mind as a constant reminder of why a reinvention is important.

Higher education has taken swift, decisive actions in response to COVID-19. Amid the massive post-pandemic transition, we have an opportunity to rechart our course further. Our network has a long way to go, and we remain an example of work that was performed despite existing disincentives and norms rather than because of them.

Still, with a charge for systemic change that equally incentivizes professional success and the fight for a sustainable future, we model how others can begin to embody the reinvention of higher ed in service of tackling unifying, complex challenges -- to the benefit of us all.



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